Sunday, March 13, 2016

Why Being an Expat is lonely

Green Corridor in Singapore

It's lonely being overseas when friends and family are at home. People told me this before I left for Singapore but I didn't really believe it would bother me. Making friends has always been easy for me and I am kind of a loner anyway, enjoying a lot of solo time or time just with my husband. But once work has been removed from my day and I am not interacting with colleagues, I realize how little interaction with friends I had prior to moving. Mostly because of both our jobs we didn't see each other all that often. And so I am in the habit of not planning activities to make friends and meet the friends I have made for additional activities. It makes me realize how little I did plan with friends at home and that other than the occasional dinner plan we didn't spend as much time together as I would probably have liked and that I will do better when I return home. I feel the loneliness when those that I've known for years are only accessible during a certain window of my day and only for a brief text or planned 

Social Media only helps a little with the feeling of isolation. Facebook is good for sharing pictures that you want everyone to see but because we all know most people share only the good stuff on Facebook or stuff they only want the whole world to see, it's not all that personal. It's pretty well documented that Facebook makes people feel lonely because our friends on Facebook are not all that close and that it provides a false sense of friendship. And while I am seeing what my friends are doing it's only a portion of those same people that I am having other meaningful exchanges with other than viewing their posts and exchanging comments. Besides, Girls called out Facebook messaging as being the lowest form of communication it's hard to get meaningful and personal via Facebook. I know I have a hierarchy of sharing information that starts with Instagram and being the most public, to Facebook friends, to an iPhoto stream that is invite only. This is me sharing my adventures and allows people to view and then comment, so the interaction is somewhat one sided and not conversational.

The 21 century apps only do so much. I have some ongoing dialogs via WhatsApp but it's still not the same as seeing people in person and being able to chat in real time or even scheduling lunch or a movie with those same connections. Also the time factor makes the WhatsApp message less urgent if I am sending a message while someone is sleeping.  

Skype is no substitute for a dinner party. We can't share a meal and a glass of wine and the spottiness that sometimes occurs do to bandwidth issues means we lose parts of the conversation. In Singapore we are sixteen hours ahead of California where my friends and family live so if I want to talk to them I need to plan a Skype date in advance, which entails figuring out what time they can do talk after their work day or coordinating an evening and afternoon time for them on the weekend that corresponds to our morning, which is usually 5 pm for them and 9 am for us. So right after drinking my coffee I am swapping out the grey tee that I wore to bed for something blue or pink that looks better on camera and putting on lip gloss, then practicing with the Photobooth app to make sure the angle of my Mac is so that nobody is looking up my nose or that the angle is so distorted it looks like I have a double chin.  

Emails help a little but they're not ongoing. I take time to send emails to people about what I am doing because I get so few emails that aren't marketing newsletters that when they reply with their own news it's enjoyable to read. A three or four paragraph email that someone has taken the time to craft is an enjoyable oasis when I find it in my inbox. If you write people emails they really do write back! It's an investment that is well worth the time it takes to write an email. 

Making connections is difficult. I have met a few very nice women with whom I enjoy having coffee and I have joined some meetups so that I can attend book clubs or walks around the island. Although having coffee and meeting for book clubs is a nice treat it doesn't add up to the volume of connections I am used to such as running into neighbors in my neighborhood or making plans to have dinner with friends. Friendships through meetup groups tend to flourish during weekday afternoons when our spouses are occupied with work making coffee and short outings a welcome distraction for a few hours. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Good Host

I am fortunate enough to have a guest room and guest bathroom for company. If this were not the case I don't think I would have guests. When I asked my friends what makes a good host one said that the guest bathroom they were using wasn't clean enough. So that's the first rule of having guests--clean your house if you want guests to return. 

Lion at Merlion Park in Singapore

Have a coffee pot. If you use a press because only one or two people in your house drink coffee, then have a coffee pot for company. You don't want to jump up every time someone wants a refill. Coffee pots are cheap and you can store yours in the garage like we have done, only taking it out when we have guests. 

My husband and I get up early in the morning and guests tend to sleep later so we get some quiet time alone before everybody wakes up. I am not one for talking in the morning for the most part. I just want to read Penelope Trunk and Gretchin Rubin, drink my coffee, and enjoy the lack of conversation. I worry that this makes me seem grumpy or unwelcoming, but I have to remind myself that I have no idea what my guests thinks about my being silent in the morning and they may like it. Is three hours of near silence too long? Don't think I just ignore everyone. I don't. I respond to questions but I am not offering up any new topics until after breakfast around 9 am or so. Until then my Mac gets all my love. 

Have a loose meal plan. Breakfast is always easy because we buy cereal, have homemade granola and fruit. I put all possible cereal and fruit options on the counter and let my guests prepare their bowls to help themselves unless we're making something like homemade pancakes or fruity broatmeal (oatmeal and barley). So that's taken care of. And then in the morning my husband and I have a discussion about what we'll do for lunch and dinner. We go day-by-day depending on what we're doing. But you have to decide if you're the kind of host who will prepare every meal for your guests or show them where everything is and let them prepare it. Usually I only have guests for 2-3 days so I prepare everything, buy all the groceries, and plan meals down to each snack. For longer stays I have learned that this isn't possible and it's better enable ([shudder] almost wrote empower) guests by showing them where everything is so they can eat breakfast when they want and eat what they want. 

Provide basic information. Lifehacker covers some of these things. Give guests your wifi password almost immediately when they walk in the door and show them where they can charge their devices. It seems to obvious to talk about clean towels so make sure there is air freshener in the bathroom they will use. We have a switch for the bathrooms that turns on the hot water, but we forgot to tell my mom so she took cold showers for three days. 

Explain your home's quirks. Luckily we live in a hot and humid environment so this wasn't horrible, but she's a trooper. Are their locks or handles in your house that are weird? If you are in a different country are you providing electrical converters? Does your shower work in an unconventional manner that will force your guests to use a million gallons of water waiting for water to get hot? Is there a step in your home where everyone trips? Did you provide a nightlight? Don't forget these little things. If you're doing airbnb check out liability coverage. 

Decide how much of your house your guests should see. Growing up I had a friend whose mom had not a junk drawer or junk closet but a junk room, The Office, used for holding gifts, wrapping paper, and everything else that didn't have a home. She was ashamed at having such a room and yelled whenever she found us searching for craft supplies in The Office. I am somewhat minimalist and I followed the KonMarie method a couple of months back for folding, purging and organizing, though I am still slacking on thanking my handbag as I put it in my closet at the end of the day. My guests can look in any drawer or closet because they are tidy. Not alphabetized soup can neat and tidy but organized. So I will say "look in the middle drawer of the console" for scissors because I don't care if they see the inside of any drawers or cupboards. 

But maybe they don't want to search. In that case leave the air freshener out on the bathroom sink. My friend provides sample sizes of shampoos, lotions, and razors in a guest basket so guests don't feel like they are opening private closets and medicine cabinets to find something. She is such good host she provides slippers so guests don't have to be barefoot. She has reading lamps on the nightstand that you don't have to get up and turn off from the main switch, which is especially useful for guests still reading books and not using the Kindle app for reading books and as a nightlight in a pinch.

Don't forget down time. Our guest room bed is also incredibly comfortable, which I think is a good start. Guests not getting a good night's sleep is a recipe for disaster. With a separate guest room and a comfortable bed it makes nap time a no-brainer and gives the host and guests some time to rest. If my guests are not nappers then my naps allows them time to read, take a walk, check email or social media or just be. My guests like to read on our deck and enjoy the afternoon breezes, maybe sipping a glass of wine or researching something they would like to see another day. It's a good time to catch up on conversation or just be together without talking. It's important to not schedule everything so tightly that there is no down time.